When expectant mothers eat sufficient amounts of the nutrient choline during pregnancy, their children gain enduring cognitive benefits, according to a new study.
Choline, found in egg yolks, lean red meat, fish, poultry, legumes, nuts, and cruciferous vegetables, has many functions, but this study focused on its role in prenatal brain development, according to researchers at Cornell University.
The researchers said they used a rigorous study design to show cognitive benefits in the babies of pregnant women who consumed close to twice the currently recommended amount of choline every day during their last trimester.
“In animal models using rodents, there’s widespread agreement that supplementing the maternal diet with additional amounts of this single nutrient has lifelong benefits on offspring cognitive function,” said Dr. Marie Caudill, a professor of nutritional sciences and the study’s first author. “Our study provides some evidence that a similar result is found in humans.”
The finding is important because choline is in high demand during pregnancy, yet most women eat less than the recommended 450 milligrams per day, she noted.
“Part of that is due to current dietary trends and practices,” said Dr. Richard Canfield, a developmental psychologist in the Division of Nutritional Sciences and the senior author of the study. “There are a lot of choline-rich foods that have a bad reputation these days.”
Eggs, for example, are high in cholesterol, and health professionals, including those in the government, have raised caution about pregnant women consuming undercooked eggs, which may deter women from eating them altogether, even though such risks are low for pasteurized or cooked eggs, Canfield said. Red meats are often avoided for their high saturated fat content and liver is not commonly eaten, he added.
In this study, 26 women were randomly divided into two groups and all the women consumed exactly the same diet. Half the women received 480 mg a day of choline, slightly more than the adequate intake level, and the other half received 930 mg a day.
Intake of choline and other nutrients were tightly controlled, which was important since the metabolism of choline and its functions can overlap with such nutrients as vitamin B12, folic acid, and vitamin B6, the researchers explained.
“By ensuring that all the nutrients were provided in equal amounts, we could be confident that the differences in the infants resulted from their choline intake,” Caudill said.
Canfield and co-author Laura Muscalu, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Ithaca College, tested infant information processing speed and visuospatial memory at four, seven, 10 and 13 months of age.
They timed how long each infant took to look toward an image on the periphery of a computer screen, a measure of the time it takes for a cue to produce a motor response. The test has been shown to correlate with IQ in childhood, the researchers explained.
Also, research by Canfield and others shows that infants who demonstrate fast processing speeds when young typically continue to be fast as they age.
While babies in both groups showed cognitive benefits, information processing speeds were significantly faster for the group of mothers who consumed 930 mg a day when compared with the group that took 480 mg a day over the same period, according to the study’s findings.
Though the study has a small sample, it suggests that current recommendations for daily choline intake may not be enough to produce optimal cognitive abilities in offspring, Canfield said.
Current choline intake recommendations are based on amounts required to prevent liver dysfunction, and were extrapolated from studies done in men, in part because no studies had investigated requirements during pregnancy, the researchers noted.
The study was published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
Source: Cornell University